For Pencil Pushers And Their Cohorts

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 16, 2006

Is the iPod more essential than the paper clip? And is the venerable No. 2 pencil obsolete or worthy of a career award?

Ranking the champions of design can challenge the wisdom of the experts. So the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Smithsonian's bastion of design scholarship, has decided to open the discussion to the public.

Beginning tomorrow, the New York museum will launch the People's Design Award. The online contest at http://www.cooperhewitt.org parallels the National Design Awards, which the museum has conferred each fall since 2000. But unlike those honors, whose recipients are selected by a jury of peers in closed-door sessions, the online contest is intended to be a full-blown populist adventure.

No toothbrush is too humble to be considered, nor any sports car too luxurious for contention.

"Design is in the eye of the beholder," the opening Web page reads, "so don't be shy -- tell us what you can't live without."

The museum is hoping for a "viral" explosion of ideas and debate with all the intensity the Internet can foster, says spokeswoman Jennifer Northrop. Anyone with an e-mail address can register and vote. And with a digital photo and a little Internet savvy, anyone can submit a nominee. (Comments are encouraged, and a webmaster will monitor for appropriateness but exercise no other censorship, Northrop says.) The contest allows one vote per e-mail address, and votes can be changed at any time until the contest ends at 6 p.m. Oct. 16. The winning design will be announced at the National Design Awards gala on Oct. 18 .

At this writing, beta testing had put a $100 laptop in first place. There isn't one yet, but the initiative begun by Nicholas Negroponte at the MIT Media Laboratory -- and announced last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland -- is progressing at a nonprofit outfit called OLPC, for One Laptop per Child. The goal, to provide technology to every child on the planet, is unassailable on humanitarian grounds. The only failing of the People's Design Award site is that it doesn't link to the OLPC site, where more about the project can be found (go to http://www.laptop.org ).

(The "voters" were Cooper-Hewitt personnel, advisers such as Jeff Speck, director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, and selected previewers.)

In second place in the beta testing was Knoll's iconic mid-century modern wire chair, chased by Apple's gorgeous transparent plastic iSub speaker, which has won countless awards for industrial design since 1999. Holding firm in fourth place was the Katrina Cottage, a likable yellow alternative to trailers designed by "new urbanist" architect Marianne Cusato. And clinging to fifth was the large-type prescription bottle designed by Deborah Adler and used at Target, which is sponsoring the People's Design Award.

The Web site requires participants to register, so the museum can learn more about its audience. Voters are asked to provide their state of residence, ostensibly so nominations can be searchable by locale.

This year, Director Paul Thompson initiated plans to enhance the museum's Web site to open the Cooper-Hewitt's vast collection -- more than 250,000 objects and works of art -- to people who can't visit the museum's Upper East Side headquarters. Thompson has talked enthusiastically of "an open theater for ideas" operating in tandem with curators and scholars.

"We're trying to promote much greater awareness of the role of design in everyday life," he said yesterday. "To make better consumers, it's important to let them know they can have a say."

The People's Design Award is the most visible example of the new paradigm, but not the only one. The museum is also extending its national presence through an educational program, which will begin to offer materials to teachers over the Internet next month. The launch of this Educational Resource Center comes at the start of a "national design week," Oct. 15-21, which seeks to encourage design-related activities across the country. The museum's Web site will flash a national map of events -- many of them scheduled coincidentally during the Cooper-Hewitt's time frame but all contributing to the ad-hoc festival.

Participants in 16 states have signed on. The schedule includes a panel at Art Center College in Pasadena, Calif.; an Eames Film Festival in Birmingham, Mich.; a celebration of the architect Louis Sullivan in Chicago; the grand opening of the Denver Art Museum's building by Daniel Libeskind; and an "Orange Peel-Off" design contest at a community arts center in Torrington, Conn.

Curiously, given the museum's tie to the Smithsonian, organizers were still scrambling to make their first contacts in Maryland, Virginia and the District. The Smithsonian's home page will link to the contest, and the American Art Museum's blog will mention it, too.

The success of the People's Design Award will depend on contributions from voters. Curators have put 50 images on the site, and the selection is quirky. Along with a see-through kayak, the latest World Cup soccer ball and an aluminum chair designed by architect Frank Gehry, there are objects from the upcoming National Design Triennial, which opens at the Cooper-Hewitt in December. Yesterday, Thompson added one of his favorites: the Maglite flashlight.

The range of exotica -- architecture, fashion, industrial design, robotics -- is suggestive of the open-ended call for nominations. If there's any risk, it's that the contest will lead to 10,000 nominations of personal favorites, each one attracting just one vote.

"We want quality, rather than quantity," Thompson said. "What we really want to see is a public forum and debate."

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